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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

And I'm Lynn Neary. And we begin this hour in the hot seat. On Capitol Hill, Republicans grilled Attorney General Eric Holder today about the botched gun trafficking operation known as Fast And Furious. In that effort, federal agents tried to build cases against drug cartels, but lost track of hundreds of weapons in the process and some of those guns turned up at crime scenes along the border. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports on today's heated hearing.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Eric Holder got a bruising reception from the Republican-dominated House Judiciary Committee. California Republican Darrell Issa, who's been leading the investigation of Fast and Furious, wanted the Attorney General to take a formal oath to tell the truth. He later declared Holder a hostile witness.

REPRESENTATIVE DARRELL ISSA: The blame must go to your desk and you must, today, take the real responsibility. Why haven't you terminated the many people involved?

JOHNSON: Issa brought up a letter the Justice Department sent to Congress in February. The letter said the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, or ATF, moved whenever it could to seize guns before they went to Mexico. But that turned out to be false, and the Justice Department took it back. Holder made clear he's since laid down the law.

ERIC HOLDER: Allowing guns to walk, whether in this administration or the prior one, is wholly unacceptable. The use of this misguided tactic is inexcusable and it must never happen again.

JOHNSON: Holder got some support from a group of big-city police chiefs sitting behind him wearing their blue dress uniforms and Democrats on the panel tried to intervene, too. Here's Michigan's John Conyers.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN CONYERS: If we're going to criticize ATF, I think we must work to revitalize it, not to tear it down.

JOHNSON: The Attorney General asked Congress to confirm a nominee to lead ATF to pass new laws against gun traffickers and to stop interfering with a rule that forces gun dealers in four border states to report multiple sales of long guns. But Issa, the California Republican, says Holder's priorities are in the wrong place.

ISSA: This administration is more interested talking about gun control than actually controlling the drugs and guns that they had control over.

JOHNSON: Wisconsin Republican Jim Sensenbrenner got down to the bottom line.

REPRESENTATIVE JIM SENSENBRENNER: What are you gonna do to clean up this mess?

HOLDER: Well, first let me make something very clear. Nobody in the Justice Department has lied. Nobody.

SENSENBRENNER: Why was the letter withdrawn?

HOLDER: The letter was withdrawn because the information in there that was inaccurate. The Justice Department letter of February...

SENSENBRENNER: Okay, well, tell me, what's the difference between lying and misleading Congress in this context?

HOLDER: Well, if you want to have this legal conversation, it all has to do with your state of mind.

JOHNSON: Republicans pointed out that next week marks the anniversary of the death of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry. Two guns linked to Fast and Furious were found near his body and his death propelled Congress to start digging into the gun operation. Holder says some lawmakers have gone too far.

HOLDER: It is unfortunate that some have used inflammatory and inappropriate rhetoric about one particular tragedy that occurred near the Southwest border in an effort to score political points.

JOHNSON: Eleven months into the congressional investigation of Fast and Furious, there are few signs Republicans are letting up. They say they want Holder's emails, as they try to go up the ladder at Justice. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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